Exploring our responsibility to the people we photograph (part three)

In between making a living and preparing for a big trip to India I have been mining my career (and my memory) as I consider the question, what is the photographer’s responsibility to the people they photograph? Answering that question has been (and will continue to be) a work in progress for me over my entire career. I can think of a few points where I got that balance closer to right and a couple where I am less sure that I did that.

In the late 1980s, I produced a photo-essay for the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine on an Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva, a school for young men focused on the advanced study of Jewish texts (primarily the Talmud.) I had studied very briefly (for two weeks,) in just such a Yeshiva in Israel in the mid-1970’s. Although I was not cut out to be a religious scholar, I did take away a better understanding of life in the subculture of a Yeshiva. So, I approached the Philadelphia Yeshiva knowing just enough about that subculture to get in, be respectful and yet get photographs that told the story I wanted to tell.

Many photographers know that in observance of Jewish law, they can only photograph on certain days or times. In my case, the trick, was to know what those were, so I could photograph the entire subculture within the Yeshiva, not just the ever-present studying. Although I came to the project knowing something about that subculture, I also sought information from the people I was photographing.

One aspect of this question of responsibility came in the choice of the media I used to photograph them. Orthodox Jews, stereotyped as living in a more traditional or simpler world, tend to be photographed often in black and white. I really wanted to do that project in color. That was because, though the Yeshiva is a world apart, it exists within the larger, contemporary world that we all live in, which of course is in color. I also wanted to avoid what I call the “ funny people in funny costumes syndrome,” meaning that rather than making them seems different or exotic, I chose to use color to help the viewer connect to their lives, reality, etc. Though we photographers love black and white, I think it often serves as a distancing filter to separate subject and viewer.

So I was photographing them in color to make them seem more contemporary, I was using my expertise to be respectful of the culture I was photographing and I was collaborating with them to better understand their perspective. In the case of the Yeshiva in Philadelphia, I think I struck the right balance between what I needed to do, being sensitive to what they thought of themselves, while giving the readers of the magazine I was working for a complete and fair portrayal of the unique subculture of a Yeshiva. In that case, I thought I had managed my responsibility to the people I was photographing reasonably well. I was told that was in fact exactly what I had done, by people in the Yeshiva community and by numerous readers over the months and years after the story was done.

A decade later I was photographing in another Yeshiva, this time in Israel. I was using what I had learned during in my own time in a Yeshiva (plus my time in the Yeshiva in Philadelphia) as my credential to gain access. Though I succeeded in getting the photographs I wanted to get, I am less clear about how well I handled my responsibility to the people I was photographing. The subculture within the Yeshiva in Israel was pretty close to what I had photographed in Philadelphia, though the men were a bit older, college aged and beyond vs. the high school and early college age men in Philadelphia.

The Yeshiva in Israel was for Jewish settlers and it was in the heart of Hebron, in the Israeli occupied West Bank. Just writing that out starts to highlight my dilemma. The settlers in the West Bank (and the ones formerly living in Gaza) have their own distinct perspective on what to call their living situation as well as how they are portrayed in the media. Having said that, I am not here to discuss any issues raised by the existence of the settlers.

While I was photographing in the settler’s Yeshiva, I was drawn to many of the same kinds of photos that I had made earlier in the Philadelphia Yeshiva. I was also drawn to photograph the overwhelming presence of the many guns which seemed to be everywhere throughout the Yeshiva. The settlers, who numbered less than1000, lived uncomfortably surrounded by approximately 200,000 Palestinians, so there was some logic to each student having an Uzi submachine gun. They carried their guns when they went to the roof to hang their laundry to dry and they kept their guns at their desks when they studied.

As I was building what became the final photo-essay, I photographed aspects of Yeshiva life that could be seen in any such institution around the world including the studying, the camaraderie and the religious rituals. I also photographed the continuous presence of the guns, so much sop that a couple students confronted me. Their questions were nearly the same, going something like: “Why are you so obsessed about photographing our guns?”

Though I knew they had a point, I also knew I had a job to do, so I persisted and once I had completely worn out my welcome, I finished photographing in the settler’s Yeshiva. When I was later editing the processed film I had to face the question of my responsibility to the subjects. I was indeed obsessed with their guns, because they made great photographs. They also highlighted the complex and dangerous situation that these students lived in. DO the settlers belong there? I am not going near that! Do they live in a situation where guns make sense? Absolutely! Is living where they do to make a political statement a wise thing to do for them selves and in the context of the larger Middle East conflict? That may be the ultimate question that I was trying to pose to the viewers of my work in that photo-essay!

In the late 1980’s, I started my photo essay on the pesticide poisoning of farm workers in the Central Valley of California. You can read more about at: http://www.davidhwells.com/docuCalPest/projecttext.html You can see photos from that at: http://www.davidhwells.com/docuCalPest/index.html

I was first drawn to this story because of a photo that I saw of a young boy with a particularly traumatic birth defect, which was most likely caused by his mother’s exposure to pesticides when she was pregnant with him. The idea of a story interconnecting the use of pesticides, the food system and farm workers all in one project seemed like a great story. After I did more research, I was really hooked on the topic because the most dramatically affected victims were the children who clearly had no complicity in what had happened to them. By comparison, the adults I interacted with while doing the story on the homeless family in the school bus and the story on the settler’s Yeshiva all had a hand in creating the complex, even troubled situations they ended up within.

The children in the school bus and especially the children of farm workers were in the situations that they were in, due to no fault of their own. Unlike when I interacted with the adults, when I interacted with the children it was pretty clear what my responsibility was to them, as a photographer. That clarity made the project especially compelling to me. By the time that I finished the pesticide-poisoning project, I had also interacted with a series of adults who were similarly complicit in the problematic situations they existed within. In the end, their issues, whether they were for or against farm workers unions, environmental concerns or minority rights were all kept out of the finished project. Though each issue had its merit, including them in my project would have diluted my effort. It would also have greatly weakened my project. That would have meant that I had failed in my responsibility to the children who were clearly the victims and to the readers to whom I had a responsibility to convey information.

I have continued to struggle with the question of my responsibility to my subjects through my recent projects. Regardless of whether I was exploring the complex relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, considering the impact of globalization in South Asia or showing the last of Rhode Island’s Quahoggers. After each one the internal dialogue went something like this: Was I fair? I certainly tried to be. Did I have enough time to really do the very best work possible both photographically and in terms of my responsibility? Almost never!

Over the last decade I have I moved further and further away from doing mainstream publication work. As I did that, I started to fully appreciate another responsibility that I had, above and beyond the one I had to my subjects, my self and my clients. I also realized had a responsibility to my audience. That rarely concerned me when I was doing photo-essays for the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine because I knew my editors respected me, and my judgment. So, by extension they respected the audience I was creating the work for.

As I have already blogged repeatedly, I have had disagreements with publications in the past about how my work was used. Many indirectly involved this question of my responsibility to my readers. The New York Times Sunday Magazine was probably the worst publication I worked for in terms of this issue. Too often they had a preconceived idea of what they wanted the images to look like, even if what they wanted was not vaguely connected to what was actually happening. In one case, my photographing to meet their expectations would have been a direct disservice to the publication’s readers. For more on that situation read: http://thewellspoint.com/2009/03/13/adapting-to-new-technology-verses-adopting-a-new-philosophy/

So in my struggle to address my responsibilities to my subjects, my self and my audience, it turns out that time, history and economic forces have largely removed the clients from the equation. In some ways that is bad because I miss reaching a larger audience but in other ways it is good because it gives me more creativity in how I tell the stories that catch my eye.

An example of that is my current project, Foreclosed Dreams, where I am photographing inside the empty homes and foreclosed dreams littering the American landscape in the wake of the foreclosure crisis. See more of that at: http://www.davidhwells.com/docuForeclosedDreams/index.html#_self In that work, I explicitly chose not to photograph individual families going through the trauma of foreclosure. There is no question that such a process would be devastating. I worried that by focusing on individual families I would have not given the viewer an opportunity to put themselves emotionally into the images that I made. If the do connect to the images, viewers are more likely to ponder what they would feel like if they were being foreclosed upon and losing their homes. The foreclosure project in general has been a real education for me especially compared to earlier projects that I have done which usually had a more conventional narrative strategy.

I am not sure I am all that much closer to answering the question, what is my responsibility to the people I photograph? At least I now know who is and who is not an important player in considering such a question. These days, when I consider the question I consider my responsibility to my subjects, my audience and my self. I assume you noted who has no place in the equation.

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